3.6 / Review

Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power

By Larissa Archer December 7, 2011

Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power, composed of work on loan from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, provides a small but potent display of both the flights of inspiration and technical advancements that made fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Venice an artistic hub. The exhibit is entirely devoted to depictions of people famous, anonymous, and mythological, and is refreshingly light on religious subject matter for a show of Italian Renaissance art. The collection not only offers insight into the artistic foment of the time, it is also a cumulative portrait of a city of robust appetites—for power, wealth, status, beauty, and sensual pleasures. The patronage of the city’s rich supported dynasties of painters, and the cache of commissioning portraits, private erotic artwork, or paintings made with expensive innovations of the time, such as exotic pigments, not only furthered the careers of the artists but altered the characteristics of the art they created. Color, previously considered the sensual, “feminine” element subordinate to the intellectual, “masculine” compositional balance favored by fifteenth-century Florentines, came to dominate the art of the Renaissance.1 Venice was the center not only of the pigment trade between the East and Northern Europe, but of the development of its usage, creating the distinctive richly colored Venetian style. The snug relationship between art and money, status and sensuality, and the masculine and the feminine, is hard to ignore while examining Masters.

Andrea Mantegna. Saint Sebastian, 1457-1459; tempera on panel; 23 x 12 in. Courtesy of Gemäldegalerie of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Earlier in the epoch, Andrea Mantegna applied the guidelines on linear perspective that architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti explicated in the 1435 treatise De Pictura to his efforts in pictorial realism, evidenced in his painting Saint Sebastian (1457–59). The exaggerated perspective and architectural detail is so minutely rendered, it is almost exhausting to study. Mantegna’s preoccupation with the connection between painting and sculpture resulted in the grisailles David with the Head of Goliath (1490–95) and Sacrifice of Isaac (1490–95), which are their own type of trompe l’oeil. They, too, show off his mastery of Alberti’s principles of perspective as well as his own skill in rendering contour with shading and exaggerating the outlines of figures to create the illusion of relief. It is easy to mistake them at first for marble or plaster friezes.

Other painters’ attempts to capture Venice’s famous light and the need for materials better suited to withstand the local humidity led to innovations in both areas. Paolo Veronese’s pastel fabrics, Titian’s famous “blondes,” the translucent complexions of Giorgione’s portraits—all stand out against the deep hues of the de Young’s walls, which have been specially painted in dark colors for this exhibition. Venetian painters also became more adept at rendering the lush fabrics of their subjects’ (often their patrons) vestments, displayed spectacularly in Titian’s Portrait of Jacopo Strada (1567–68), whom the artist portrays cloaked in white fox fur, black velvet, and salmon-colored satin.

But technical virtuosity does not seem to be what this collection is about. After all, not all the paintings displayed are Titians; some artists of the Veneto suffer by comparison, particularly where depictions of women are concerned. Paris Bordone’s anonymous females are Frankensteins of mismatched, idealized parts: a gravity-defying breast here, a longshoreman’s arm there. Palma Vecchio’s chocolate-box portraits lack the grace and elegant proportions of other idealizations, such as those of Greco-Roman classicism. They also lack the recognizable humanity with which these same Venetian artists endowed their portraits of men, whose sagacious stares and imposing stances, one assumes, they saw as an exaggerated reflection of their status.

Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian. , ca. 1560; oil on canvas; 53 x 60 in. Courtesy of Gemäldegalerie of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

For example, Licinio’s Portrait of Ottavio Grimani, Procurator of San Marco (1541), is less accomplished in its rendering of textures than other exhibited works; the noble appears to be wearing a doublet of prosciutto di Parma. Nevertheless, it depicts a believable human being rather than an idealized type. His furrowed brow and grimly set mouth suggest the shrewd intelligence necessary to ascend to the most prestigious position in the Republic of Venice next to the Doge, and his casual posture suggests he is a man comfortable with such a status.

These disparities in the portrayals of men and women are less visible in the work of the more adept painters. In Lavinia as a Matron (1565), Titian depicts his daughter as uncomfortable and stiff—the shy child forced into the spotlight by her superstar parent. But by portraying her ungainliness and her apparent distress at being portrayed at all, Titian has given her something few other painters included here allowed their female subjects: humanity. Even Titian’s figures from antiquity are complex human beings rather than opaque myths. In Lucretia and her Husband (1512–15), Lucretia looks skyward with a mix of grief and defiance, her eyes glistening with tears; in a white-knuckled fist out of view of her husband, she clutches the dagger which she’ll soon use to take her life. That indelicate, almost masculine fist, stands in contrast with the rest of her, and gives the image its drama.

Such contrasts distinguish not only the exhibit’s selection but the portrait of Venice this grouping sketches. One leaves unsure of where La Serenissima’s values lie: Was the art and its advancements simply a byproduct of great wealth, examples of a highbrow form of conspicuous consumption accumulated by an elite whose main interest was power and wealth itself? Or was the power and wealth considered the means toward cultivating sensual luxuries, the least quantifiable of which are the pleasures in owning art? Perhaps that ambiguity is essential to Venice’s persona. One of the world’s loveliest cities, seminal to some of the most exquisite art and music of the Western canon, also coined the word ghetto, housed the first and most famous “bridge of sighs” (which connected the prison to the notoriously bloody interrogation rooms of the Doge’s palace), was the first state in Europe to employ a mercenary army, and built its empire on assassinations, backstabbing, and oppression. The convergence of the militaristic, sybaritic, and aesthetic might be the defining mystery of Venice itself, and Masters, as revelatory as it is, only deepens that mystery.


  1. Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, “Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power,” (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and DelMonico Books: Prestel, 2011), 29.  

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